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AUSTIN — Without a significant amount of rain falling in the upper portion of the lower Colorado River basin by March 1, rice farmers in three lower basin counties could face a second year without Highland Lakes water.

At least that’s what a resolution unanimously approved Jan. 8 by the 15-member Lower Colorado River Authority board of directors sets up if the combined storage of lakes Buchanan and Travis is below 850,000 acre-feet on that date.

“Obviously, we’re going to have to deem today a success,” said Burnet County Precinct 4 Commissioner Joe Don Dockery. His precinct includes almost 20 miles of Lake Travis shoreline.

Under the resolution approved by the LCRA board that now goes to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality for its OK, the water authority would continue a drought-relief measure adopted in 2011 that limits downstream releases for agriculture irrigation in three counties — Matagorda, Wharton and Colorado — based on the amount of water in lakes Buchanan and Travis as of 11:59 p.m. March 1.

If the combined storage falls below 850,000 acre-feet, LCRA would curtail those releases relied heavily upon by rice farmers in the three counties.

Clara Tuma, an LCRA spokesperson, said if that does happen, it would be the second year in a row the agriculture releases from the Highland Lakes were curtailed.

All hope is not lost for the downstream irrigation users and their communities. If the combined storage of lakes Buchanan and Travis is between 850,000 acre-feet and 920,000 acre-feet as of March 1, LCRA could release up to 121,000 acre-feet.

If the water amount is above 920,000 acre-feet, LCRA would provide water as outlined in the 2011 Water Management Plan.

As of Jan. 8, the two reservoirs held about 826,000 acre-feet. Officials said it would take a good amount of rain in the upper watershed to get the lakes to the 850,000 acre-feet trigger point.

The resolution also outlines how much, if any, rice farmers in the three downstream counties could get for a second crop. But LCRA General Manager Rebecca Motal told the board if there was no water released for the first crop, then there would be none released for the second.

While the resolution garnered the support of the entire board, which includes members from the three rice-farming counties in the lower basin, it didn’t get the same acceptance from those living in those communities.

“It’s not just about farming,” Wharton County Jude Phillip Spenrath said. “It’s beyond rice and farming. It’s about the economy.”

He said he knew one rice operation that laid off 21 workers last year. The judge pointed out those are people who won’t be buying items at local stores while some might have even lost their homes. Spenrath told the board that cutting the water from the farmers also impacts schools and businesses.

LCRA board member John Dickerson of Matagorda County said while he is from the rice-farming area, he has to look at the big picture.

“I’m here to serve this whole basin,” he said just minutes after voting in favor of the resolution.

Dockery said the emergency declaration, if eventually approved by TCEQ, is only a step in the right direction in protecting water throughout the basin.

“The answer is the downstream reservoirs,” he said. “We need to find a way to get those off-channel reservoirs built.”

daniel@thepicayune.com